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AIDS – QNS.com

AIDS

More than 500,000 Americans have died of AIDS since the disease first appeared in the early 1980s, but even today the lingering social stigmas make education and prevention of the virus a difficult task.
In 2004, it is estimated that of the nearly one million Americans currently living with HIV, one in four are completely unaware of their infection status. And alarmingly, new studies indicate that there is a clear correlation between social and ethnic attitudes to the disease and its transmission and rate of infection.
Here in Queens, the most ethnically diverse community in the world, attitudes to the disease are usually as varied and complex as the communities they reflect. But a general unease concerning issues surrounding sexuality and drugs — the two main sources of HIV transmission — still unites most communities. Two decades into the international pandemic, the reluctance to address how AIDS is transmitted is still the biggest barrier to its containment. As a result, Jamaica a neighborhood right in our borough has the highest rate of HIV transmission among women in the nation, according to the latest figures.
Currently there are more than 7,000 people living with AIDS in Queens and over 2,500 people living with HIV. Over 42 percent of cases are found in the African American community, over 29 percent of cases are found in the Hispanic community and over 26 percent are found in the white community. The district of Jamaica, Queens now has more cases of AIDS and HIV than in 19 states of the union.
"The demographics have shifted," said Phillip Glotzer, the Executive Director of AIDS Center of Queens County (ACQC). "In the early 1980s AIDS was thought of as a gay white mans disease. But in the 1990s we saw a dramatic change. Eighty five percent of the people we see at the ACQC now are people of color, and forty five percent of all new cases are women of color. AIDS in Queens is a heterosexual disease and its a nationwide trend."
Glotzer strongly cautions anyone from making hurried assessments about how mind-sets within other cultures or communities may contribute to their infection levels.
In the African-American community, which is statistically the most at risk in the United States, the prevailing cultural attitude suggests that masculinity and fatherhood are frequently viewed as a black man’s primary responsibility. Homosexuality, insofar as it is discussed at all, is often viewed as a non-black issue, or even as the result of other cultures degeneracy. But the stigma surrounding the issue belies the startling reality: African-Americans account for twelve percent of the population in America, but now they account for almost half of all new reported HIV infections nationally.
"Attitudes to the disease here have changed as people have discovered someone they know carries the virus," said Glotzer. "It can be hard to overcome the stigma, but we make the most progress when people discover someone they know is HIV positive."
Sexuality and drug addiction are often not the first items up for discussion at the many Community Board meetings taking place across the borough, but crisis levels of HIV infection and transmission have been forcing their discussion to the top of the agenda. Recently, Queens CB1 voted unanimously to pass a resolution allowing a free needle exchange program to operate near Queensboro Plaza an area frequented by addicts. Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Borough President Helen Marshall are advocates of the program, and their efforts are paying dividends.
"The Borough President supports the notion of the program operating there," said Marshalls spokesman Dan Andrews. "She went down to take a look and thought it was a good location."
Said Glotzer: "Under Mayor Giuliani we never even thought of a needle exchange program. The not-in-my-backyard attitude was hard to dislodge. But when the community boards actually do sit down and assess the program, they consistently appreciate its value and they see that its a better alternative to driving the problem underground."
Glotzer has been at the battlefront of the fight against HIV transmission for years now. He has little patience with the comfortable cultural assumptions that still attempt to portray HIV and AIDS as someone elses problem. And he speaks with all the authority of an individual who has been fighting the disease and the deep denials that help it spread. In his opinion, if others are made uncomfortable by the subject matter, thats better than their being infected due to ignorance.
"We have been treating drug addiction as a criminal issue when its actually more realistic to call it a health issue," he said. "Locking up addicts only prevents their rehabilitation, but treating the roots of their addiction and ensuring they dont infect others when they shoot up is ultimately a more enlightened step."
E-mail this reporter at cahir@queenscourier.com.

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